The psychology of a mass murderer

Q&A with the Threat Assessment Group’s Dr. Park Dietz


Last week, a 48-year-old Pennsylvania man walked into a Pittsburgh area gym and began firing a handgun, killing three women and wounding nine others before turning the gun on himself.

The gunman, identified as George Sodini, was later found to have a deep seeded hatred for woman, saying in a note found by police that he had never had a significant intimate relationship with a woman and only had limited sexual experiences with women. Sodini also had a blog in which he blamed women for everything that was wrong in his life.

In this SIW Q&A, renowned forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz, founder of workplace misconduct prevention firm Threat Assessment Group, explains the mindset of a mass murderer and what businesses can do to spot a potential threat in their midst.

SIW: What is the psychological profile of someone who’s willing to carry out a mass shooting?

Dietz: The real issues with mass murderers is that all of them are both sad and depressed enough to be willing to die and also angry or paranoid enough that they are blaming other people for their suffering and misfortune. Those are two of the critical ingredients, there has never been a mass murderer, acting alone, who didn’t have both of those (characteristics) in mass murders against strangers where mass murder is defined as three or more people dead in one incident for psychological reasons.

Are there any warning signs that a person maybe getting ready to commit an atrocity such as this?

There are always countless warning signs observed by nearly everyone who has had contact with the person and often for years. Unfortunately, those warning signs are not very specific and so they apply to many people who will never be violent toward anyone but themselves and they apply to many people for short term reasons that will go away. In order to be able to catch in your net, everyone who will do a mass murder, you need to err on the side of catching hundreds or thousands of people with similar behaviors who will never commit a mass murder no matter what you do. When prediction suffers form that problem, it is necessary to be very thoughtful about what you do to the false positives who you identify as having some of the warning signs. This is easy to prevent among employees or students on a campus or patients in hospital, and very difficult to prevent in society at large under our system of law.

From a corporate security perspective, what types of steps can a business take to prevent or minimize loss of life during an active shooter scenario?

The focus up through the 1970s and the very early 80s was what will we do if we have an incident? How do we minimize the loss of life? A number of the Fortune 1000 by that time had crisis management plans that had considered a shooting incident as one of the possibilities that they would have to cope with. None of them, not a single one had any policy or plan in place for how to prevent it from happening. In 1987 when we created this field of workplace violence prevention as a separate specialty, the corporate world had an initial reluctance to begin to try and prevent this based upon the concern that it was too rare to bother or it won’t happen here or it can’t happen here. That concern faded away with a barrage of newspaper articles about various shootings in the workplace and that gained enough awareness that there could be enough traction for prevention programs.

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